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New Net decency rules developing

The campaign to bar children's access to "indecent" online material finds a new target: needy schools.

The campaign to bar children's access to "indecent" online material found a new target this week: needy schools.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) promised yesterday to introduce legislation mandating schools that apply for federal Net access discounts to filter out indecent Net sites. The up to $2.25 billion in annual discounts, also known as "e-rates," will be doled out to schools and libraries starting this year by the Federal Communications Commission, under direction from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

McCain, the powerful chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, is the latest federal lawmaker to attempt to regulate online smut and other adult-oriented material.

Congress could consider a handful of bills this session that would for example prohibit commercial Web sites run by publications such as Playboy and Penthouse from distributing content to minors. There also is legislation on the table that would make it a felony to use a computer network to send sexually explicit messages to a person under the age of 16, and a bill to ban Net access providers from giving accounts to "sexually violent predators."

Ever since the Communications Decency Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in June, politicians and the online industry have been searching for ways to shield minors from everything on the Net from nudity to hate speech and alcohol advertisements. The CDA's clause prohibiting the transmission or display of indecent material to minors via the Net unconstitutionally censored protected speech, the high court ruled, because it could have criminalized simply posting Web pages about safe sex, art, or medical issues, for example.

Still, the high court's rejection of the term "indecent" and assertion that the Net is not TV have not stopped Congress from churning out new proposals. McCain's solution would hit public schools where it counts.

"McCain will introduce legislation to make sure that schools receiving federally established Internet subsidies limit students' access to indecent Internet material in the classroom," states a release issued by McCain's office yesterday. "He will also ensure that the school wiring subsidy is distributed on a priority basis to the schools most in need, and that these schools can partner with more advanced schools in their states in their implementation of advanced learning technologies."

Schools could use blocking software or other filtering technologies to bar students' access to pornography or other adult material. These solutions were highlighted at a summit in Washington last month, and are being pushed from as high up as President Clinton, who also had signed the now-defunct CDA into law. But blocking products also have been criticized for screening valuable material. (See related story)

By tying public funding to Net filtering requirements for schools, McCain would no doubt get the results he is seeking. But educators and school librarians already are coming out against the idea.

"It's true that a school legally takes on the parental role of taking care of the children, so they are vulnerable to this," said Karen Coyle, who heads up library automation for the University of California system, and is an advocate for the American Library Association.

"The question comes down as to whether the federal government can impose a rule like this when the administration of schools is generally at the state and local level," she added. "Also, making it a requirement really adds a technological burden and liability issues for schools."

Others says McCain's work-in-progress stirs the same concerns as did the CDA.

"My first question to the senator would be, how are you going to define 'indecent'? Who would set the definition, i.e., teachers or parents or legislators? Can you create a single, uniform definition that is applicable across the country?" said Amy Derby, a Portland, Oregon, educational resources librarian, who helps public schools integrate technology into the classroom.

Instead of embracing McCain's idea, Derby said, Congress should realize that schools must submit a detailed technology plan when applying for the FCC subsidy, which could address "acceptable use policies" for students who use the Net.

For example, some districts only allow access to a specific, prereviewed set of Web sites. On the other hand, some schools ask students to agree to online behavior policies. If violated, a student's Net access privileges could be revoked.

"How students and teachers are going to use the Internet should be a part of planning. Only one facet of the planning should be about the hardware and software planning," she added. "What is really important is to figure out educational goals: What you want for your students and your teachers. How will the Internet extend, enhance, and support the educational process. Having an acceptable use policy is part of defining this."

Although McCain's draft legislation has yet to be introduced, the Commerce Committee will holding hearings on how to address Net pornography and indecent online material on February 10. The committee will likely discuss legislation introduced by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Indiana) in November to prohibit commercial Web sites from distributing to those under age 17 any material that is "harmful to minors." (See related story)

Coats, who pushed the CDA, thinks he has a winning solution.

Still, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center plan to fight Coats's bill on the same grounds they used to fight the CDA. In the meantime, self-regulatory efforts are pushing forward. America Online, the Walt Disney Company, Microsoft, and the Learning Company, which manufactures the Cyber Patrol blocking program, are working now to develop television public service announcements targeted at young Net users to teach them how to steer clear of sexually explicit sites, and to deter them from giving out personal information in cyberspace.